Two exhibitions––one extending from 1950 to the present and the other focused on the 1990s through today––bring artworks made in Cuba to US audiences.
EVEN BEFORE the December 2014 announcement of the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, several major US museums had begun organizing comprehensive shows of contemporary Cuban art. Their openings this spring came on the heels of both frenzy for all things Cuban and a new uncertainty about what changes the Trump administration may effect. “Wild Noise/Ruido Salvaje,” presented by the Bronx Museum of the Arts through July 3, and “Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950,” which closed in May at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and opens on November 11 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, quickly bumped up against the limits of US-Cuban relations. Both exhibitions were originally intended to include works from Cuba’s Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (MNBA), which exhibited some eighty pieces from the Bronx Museum’s collection for the first part of “Wild Noise/Ruido Salvaje” in 2015. But the risk that artworks entering the United States might be seized due to claims concerning properties confiscated during the revolution dissuaded Cuban institutions from significant lending. The US institutions were forced to rely largely on private collections, artists’ loans, and American museum holdings.
The shows vary markedly in their scale, logic, and works, but complement each other to a degree. “Adiós Utopia,” billed by its three curators as “the largest and most important exhibition of Cuban contemporary art ever organized,” 1 encompasses more than one hundred outstanding pieces. It is resolutely epic––somewhat paradoxically, given the curators’ desire to counter the revolution’s own epic rhetoric. “Wild Noise,” by contrast, features a more eclectic selection of sixty-odd pieces heavily weighted toward the 1990s onward, with a few artworks from the 1970s and 1980s.
The lead curators of “Adiós Utopia,” Gerardo Mosquera, Elsa Vega, and René Francisco––respectively, an acclaimed critic and curator, an MNBA specialist on Cuban abstraction of the 1950s and ’60s, and a renowned artist and teacher––have stated that they set out to foreground art rather than history. Yet the show’s title––triumphant or elegiac, depending on how one reads it––corrals its diverse objects into an overarching narrative. As originally conceived by the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO), the exhibition was to be a more comprehensive and chronological show, but complications with loans and scale forced the thematic reframing.
“Adiós Utopia” conveys how artists engaged the social utopias formulated in Cuba over the past half-century, and how they were subsequently disillusioned. As the exhibition makes clear, there have, in fact, been many goodbyes, strung out over decades. These were often occasioned by moments in which the revolution itself parted ways with the utopian ideas with which it began: Fidel Castro’s 1961 statement that within the revolution anything was possible, but against it, nothing; his approval of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968; the forced self-critique of poet Heberto Padilla in 1971; the 1989 execution of a high-ranking general accused of narco-trafficking, and so on. Artistic shifts broadly tracked these historical events, and while “Adiós Utopia” doesn’t supply copious background, excellent essays in an extensive catalogue accompanying the show shed light on the intertwining histories of Cuban art and society.
Mosquera details, for instance, how a wan, Soviet-inspired Socialist Realism, neither truly imposed nor embraced in the 1970s, followed directly from Cuba’s forced entry into the Soviet economic bloc (COMECON), itself triggered by Cuba’s failure to make good on an all-out drive to reap a ten-million-ton sugar harvest. In a section of “Adiós Utopia” dedicated to Cuban poster art, the bold serigraphs Olivio Martínez’s made between 1969 and 1970 each celebrate one of the potential million-ton increments. Mosquera also addresses the exhibition’s paucity of art from the 1970s: the era, he claims, simply did not yield much quality work––largely because of Soviet authoritarianism. An illuminating, searing essay by René Francisco documents conflicts between Cuban artists and official cultural arbiters that led to the eventual exodus of the storied 1980s generation. Essays by Iván de la Nuez and Antonio Eligio (Tonel) counter the exhibition’s own teleological narrative from enthusiasm to despair, charting how utopia has been for Cuban artists a protean and changing concept. Utopia was commandeered both from above through restrictive cultural policy and from below by artists for whom it meant not militant political revolution but, variously, popular culture, global artistic contemporaneity, the grotesque and carnal, and a Rousseauian interest in nature. These other utopias offered alternative visions of pleasure, abundance, and liberal mores, all of which contrasted with the revolutionary leadership’s often sacrificial, largely middle-class aesthetics and ethics.
IN A SURPRISING and welcome move, the Houston installation of “Adiós Utopia” opened with 1950s abstract painting. Many of the featured artists are just now receiving overdue attention, including Pedro de Oraá, Salvador Corratgé, Dolores (Loló) Soldevilla, and Sandu Darie. A large mixed-medium work by Soldevilla was accompanied by two of her bronze wire sculptures, while several Darie paintings opposed one of his playful “transformable structures,” small painted wood sculptures designed to be manipulated. A small room offered a detailed timeline of developments in Cuban art and politics since the 1950s, and a monitor played clips from Unfinished Spaces, a 2011 documentary about the 1962 design, construction, and incompletion of a truly utopian project, Cuba’s National Art Schools, partially built on the grounds of a former golf course.
Informed by geometric abstraction in Europe and the Americas––the Romanian-born Darie, for instance, was in touch with the Argentine Madí movement in the 1940s––abstract painters in Cuba embraced the revolution and saw geometric abstraction’s nonpersonal, universal style as consonant with a utopian spirit. But as revolutionary taste began to favor the figurative and realist, abstract art was viewed with skepticism. With notable exceptions––Soldevilla, Oraá, and Darie among them––many abstract painters changed styles or disappeared from the scene after 1963. By reintroducing these important works into a narrative of utopian impulses, the curators rightfully address Cuban art’s long-standing connection to social movements and point to ways in which utopia meant more than the institutionalized revolution.
As revolutionary taste began to favor the figurative and realist, abstract art was viewed with skepticism. Abstraction from the 1960s gave way a bit suddenly to galleries devoted to the theme of “the cult and deconstruction of the revolutionary nation.” Here, the revolution’s icons undergo an overhaul, with numerous works intervening in representations of Ernesto “Ché” Guevara, Fidel Castro, and their peers. Juan Francisco Elso’s sculpture For America (José Martí), 1986, renders Cuba’s national hero, a poet who died early in the 1895 War of Independence, in wood and earth, pierced by wooden fleurs de lis and wielding a machete as if he were a mambí soldier, one of the largely Afro-Cuban guerrilla fighters from the nation’s first war of independence (1868–78). Elso was an important figure in 1980s New Cuban Art, which rejected earlier realisms and orthodoxies for Pop, performance, kitsch, Arte Povera, Land art, institutional critique, and Conceptualism. But “Adiós Utopia” also seeks to highlight less canonized or previously shunned artists. Here, Antonia Eiriz’s dark, expressionistic paintings Those Above and Those Below and Standing (both 1963) are noteworthy; in 1968 Eiriz stopped painting altogether and turned to teaching children how to use papier-mâché, returning to the canvas only after moving to Miami in the 1990s.
Eiriz’s works featuring shadowy brushstrokes and intimations of skulls played off Raúl Martínez’s riotously colorful Pop art portraits of revolutionary figures brushing shoulders with the artist and his male lover. Martínez was a leading proponent of the abstract-expressionist style before adopting a Pop aesthetic. His 9 Repetitions of Fidel and Microphones (1968) comprises different versions of Castro’s face caught mid-harangue. The work may have been taken as hagiographic in its time, but it suggests Castro’s ubiquity and his control of communications as his increasingly misshapen face floats among microphones resembling phalluses in varying degrees of erection. At the painting’s center, the leader’s open mouth forms a black void that emits endless sound––or silence.
THE CURATORS passed over some of the less figurative work of the 1980s––I would have welcomed Gustavo Pérez Monzón’s delicate pieces made from stone and thread, or Ricardo Brey’s sculptures using natural materials––in order to highlight revolutionary mythology. Tomás Esson’s painting My Homage to Ché (1987) uses photographer Alberto Korda’s famous image of Guevara but portrays him as a black man, like the artist himself. In the painting, Ché is half-hidden by a pale, fleshy pig copulating with an amalgamation of female body parts. Ché’s mouth appears to be rimming the pig’s anus, making the whole thing a scatological explosion of fucking-or perhaps of being fucked over by the masculinist principles of Ché’s “New Man.” The painting was censored, and is shown here for only the second time.
While glowing orbs are common in Bedia’s work, here they suggest the souls of those lost to ill-fated journeys. Esson’s paintings are among several works exploring the grotesque. A couple of stellar pieces by Umberto Peña, who abandoned painting after his work provoked reprimand, recall Philip Guston. In You Go Plaff (1967), a set of teeth clench a lightning bolt while emerging from a digestive tract swimming in a toilet bowl.
One of my favorite pieces, José Ángel Toirac’s video Opus (2005), is the only work shared by both shows. (Tania Bruguera’s Head Down would have been another, but she pulled it from the Bronx Museum to protest what she saw as the institution’s too-cozy relations with Cuban authorities. 2 ) In Toirac’s video, sequences of numbers serve as subtitles for an audio track spliced together from statistics cited in Castro’s speeches. The size of a 1995 potato harvest, Cuba’s share of gold medals at the Olympics, and the number of children dying of preventable diseases in other countries, say, are all grist for this maniacal enumeration. The voice, at once imposing and reedy, generates a frisson when fragments cut each other off, glitchlike, as if the speaker were tripping over his efforts to sum everything up.
In a section labeled “Sea, Borders, Exile,” utopia and its inverse seemed to have fallen away, and we’re left with daily struggle. Associated with promise and obstruction, freedom and death, the ocean has always loomed large in Cuban art and literature. Here, abstract paintings and sculptures of rafts joined photographs documenting decades of unstaunched departures. An early 1990s photograph by Manuel Piña captures a young man from behind as he leaps from Havana’s seawall esplanade, the Malecón, during the height of the post-Soviet period of scarcity. The photograph is a serene composition of horizon, ocean, and body, but its punctum for me was a big toe just visible through a hole in the boy’s sneaker. Fusing insular and religious themes, José Bedia’s To the Possible Limit (1996) is an immense, semicircular painting. At the top, a ribbon the color of old parchment is limned with the facades and narrow streets of Centro Habana. Below, the Atlantic Ocean fans out in a deep periwinkle studded with shark fins and lights. While glowing orbs are common in Bedia’s work, here they suggest the souls of those lost to ill-fated journeys. Two enormous eyes gazing out from the waters are adorned with symbols used in Afro-Cuban religions, a frequent reference for Bedia, an initiate in Palo Monte, a Kongo-derived faith. A man grasps an inner tube, arms thrown up mid-stroke or mid-surrender, at the edge of the work and the limit of what is bearable.
The grandiosity proper to the revolution’s ambitions––to defy its imperial neighbor and build a socialist utopia on a Caribbean island––resonated with Soviet orders of magnitude. A 1991 work titled Utopia by Eduardo Ponjuán and exhibition co-curator René Francisco (who have often worked together) consists of the word utopia in Cyrillic letters painted across a wall that is hung with five ironic Socialist Realist portraits. And many of the show’s final works are striking in their scale: Los Carpinteros‘ 2006 life-size lighthouse lies tipped on its side, an enlightenment project felled, but now available for inspection; a bold 16-by-49-foot painting installation by Glexis Novoa borrows Soviet aesthetics and faux-Cyrillic typography and explodes them in bright oranges and reds.
If Cuba’s socialist utopia is by now relegated to the past, its historical material is ripe for a new generation to consider. Alejandro González’s 2015 photographs of his cardboard maquettes present important moments in Cuban Revolutionary history: the 1971 National Congress on Education and Culture, the 1972 Inauguration of Lenin Park. The carefully constructed miniature sets, enlarged in stark black-and-white photos, revisit the epic tenor of events and spaces that saw the elaboration of utopian programs and draconian policies.
The exhibition closed with several video pieces. In Four Cubans (1997) by Carlos Garaicoa, veterans of Cuba’s 1975 intervention into Angola’s civil war stare mutely at the camera, the rubble of Havana behind them. Javier Castro’s Golden Age (2012) records children’s hopes for what they may be when they grow up (“a foreigner”). Documentary footage of Los Carpinteros’ exquisite Irreversible Conga (2012) rounds out the show. During the eleventh Havana Biennial, dancers donned all-black attire and sashayed backward toward the Malecón to music playing in reverse. The extravaganza recalled the joyous funeral parades that stud the Atlantic world. 3 But was it a funeral for the revolution, a defiance of its “irreversibility,” or an homage to those who danced Cuba, albeit backward, into the present?
The exhibition’s march through seventy years of art therefore leaves us at a recent Havana Biennial, itself no longer an alternative to but part of the global art market, in a final goodbye to artistic utopias. Los Carpinteros’ conga, however, is more agnostic about where we are headed. It joyously and improbably synchronizes multitudes, including Havana denizens who spontaneously join the dance.
“WILD NOISE” offers a more synchronic snapshot of contemporary Cuban art and a counterpoint to the trajectory from dream to deception. Curated by Corina Matamoros and Aylet Ojeda Jequín, both from Cuba’s MNBA, the exhibition presents divergent reflections on sexuality, religiosity, and contemporary painting, beyond the expected historical references and themes of exile and separation. The pieces are not arranged thematically, but together they trace an almost imperceptible arc away from broad, national themes of departure, hardship, and the country’s architectural and ideological ruins toward a post-conceptualism more concerned with surfaces and with an intimate scale that encompasses neighborhoods and street corners, even sidewalk cracks and paint chips.
The Bronx Museum does well to start with an antechamber lined with powerful works by Ana Mendieta and Belkis Ayón. Mendieta’s photo series “Silueta Works in Iowa” (1976–78) explores the body in nature: Mendieta covered in mud and blending into a tree trunk; a rock pool whose bottom blooms suggestively with a feathery green algae or moss. The sites pulse with presence around suddenly perceptible bodily absences. The central themes in these seminal photographs––part of Mendieta’s exploration of her wrenching departure from Cuba with her sister (sans parents) as part of the US government’s 1960–62 Operation Peter Pan––echo in later artworks. Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons’s When I am not here/Estoy allá (1996), for instance, explores the persistence and exhaustion of identity for the Cuban-born, US-based artist, while Arturo Cuenca’s Invisible (1985), a moody watercolor on a photograph of a foggy window, plumbs layers of thwarted perception through various lenses and surfaces (misty windows, the photograph, paint).
Ayón’s arresting collagraphs––prints made using a collage technique––portray figures from Abakuá, the all-male Cuban secret society (derived from Nigerian Ékpè [leopard] societies), to which Ayón gained rare access. In groupings of silhouetted figures, faces bereft of all features except piercing eyes gaze mesmerizingly at the viewer. Afro-Cuban history is again both central and occluded in Bedia’s Mi conuco al pie de la loma (1996), an acrylic of a stylized bull, its flank a hill sporting a tiny figure with a machete. The title, translated as “My Garden at the Foot of a Hill,” refers to the plots of land that slaves could farm for themselves. Inscribed on the bull’s flank is a red anaforuana, an Abakuá sign, which can be read only by initiates.
WORKS FROM THE “Special Period”––the roughly fifteen years of dire scarcity that followed the final end of Soviet economic support in 1991––inevitably underscore the arte povera made as the Cuban economy contracted: Ponjuán and Francisco’s colorful sign Art (1990), for instance, produced amid power outages, simulates a neon sign with paint and found materials. Related themes taken up by artists today, however, exude not crudeness or desperation but polish and abstraction, befitting the new independent Havana galleries exhibiting their work, only recently permitted and often in the form of open studios. (Previously, all galleries were state-run.) Diana Fonseca’s series “Degradations” (2015) features multihued, richly textured palimpsests of chipped paint recovered from Havana’s peeling edifices. José Manuel Fors’s photo-collage Fragments (2006–11) dices up sepia-toned found photographs from family archives, “pixelating” them by hand into tiny squares. Alejandro Campins, a leading young painter known for his subdued, minimal portrayals of historical sites, explores death and time not in Cuban history but at Cairo’s Necropolis, where afternoon shadows and a green awning adorn an Egyptian city of the dead instead of a melancholic Havana.
If Cuba’s socialist utopia is by now relegated to the past, its historical material is ripe for a new generation to consider. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Cuban artists, designers, and curators took an interest in the vernacular aesthetic production that emerged during the period of scarcity. They extensively documented homemade household objects––lanterns made of beer cans, satellite dishes made of cafeteria trays, etc.––as well as the illicit home fabrication that produced them. Today these traditions have been assimilated into artistic practice. Humberto Díaz enjoyed a three-month stint in the Bronx in 2015 as part of a US-Cuba artist exchange. His sculpture from that year is represented by Barber’s Beard, scissors attached to wooden sticks, and is accompanied by New Little Broom (2014), composed of broom heads attached to a multi-pronged tree branch. Both pieces excise functionality, turn from the factory to nature, and place the objects (verging on twee) in the museum.
Rough-hewn 1990s objects are offset by coeval works of delicacy. Ezequiel Suárez’s New Swiss Art (1998–99), inspired by a visit to Jean Dubuffet’s collection of Art Brut, are small compositions in blue and red thread on green sandpaper. Singularly attractive, they might seem merely poetic to a viewer unaware of Suárez’s long career joyfully mocking or boldly defying institutions, while walking the line between art and non-art. (In 1994 he exhibited a work that read institutions are shit and founded, with Sandra Ceballos, the independent gallery Espacio Aglutinador.)
The Bronx Museum’s well-lit galleries for “Wild Noise” facilitate an easy circumnavigation through diverse practices. This big-tent approach leads to decontextualizing but frees the works from inevitably referring back to the revolution, the state, or specifically Cuban history. The topics of slavery and African-derived religions, far from being uniquely Cuban phenomena, offer a timely bridge to US audiences. Even Felipe Dulziades’s series of humorous photographs “Eighteen Reasons to Cease Making Art” (2007–10)––which depicts highly local interventions into the city landscape, such as people gathered under a lone overpass of a highway shorn of flanking roads or a pineapple inexplicably set atop a stone marker at a street intersection––highlights the ingenuity of popular urban aesthetics.
These two exhibitions of Cuban art open in a post-revolutionary present, and in a United States whose utopian fantasies sometimes channel unhinged ideas about a radical free market that hurries us toward the dystopia of planetary apocalypse. Yet the surveys serve to remind viewers of art’s enduring power to activate and engage with social imaginaries. In truth, one can never say goodbye to utopia, given that its root meaning––”no place”––suggests something aspirational rather than concrete. Bidding goodbye to utopia in Houston and Minneapolis may end the run of shows and publications on Cuban art that have invoked the concept (beginning with “Utopian Territories: New Art from Cuba,” Belkin Art Gallery, Vancouver, 1997, and “Contemporary Art from Cuba: Irony and Survival in the Utopian Island,” Arizona State Art Museum, 1998). Or it may reflect on the forces nurturing contemporary art. “Adiós Utopia” borrows roughly a third of its works from the private collection of Miami-based Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, director of CIFO and today’s most important collector of Cuban art. Does it thus signal the end of that utopia, sometimes associated with 1980s Cuban aesthetics, in which art might be made for neither markets nor collections?
Visitors to the two exhibitions are privy not only to rarely seen examples of contemporary Cuban art from the past decades, but also to recent pieces that work through or altogether overlook the Cuban Revolution’s legacy. Members of a new generation of Cuban artists––including Carlos Martiel, Diana Fonseca, Glenda León, Alejandro Campins, and Reynier Leyva Novo, to name just a few featured in the shows––are making work that, as Iván de la Nuez observes in his catalogue essay, situates itself beyond utopia, but also beyond apocalypse.
CURRENTLY ON VIEW “Wild Noise/Ruido Salvaje,” at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York, through July 3.
RACHEL L. PRICE is an associate professor in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at Princeton University.
1. René Francisco, Gerardo Mosquera, and Elsa Vega, “Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950,” in Adiós Utopia: Art in Cuba Since 1950, Miami, Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation, p. 145.
2. See Randy Kennedy, “Artist Pulls Her Work from Bronx Museum of the Arts Cuba Exhibition,” New York Times, Jan. 26, 2017, nytimes.com.
3. See Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance, New York, Columbia University Press, 1996.